Noirisme in Haiti

Pseudo-Scientific and literary Haitian Journal "Les Griots." Source: Entretien avec René Depestre by  Jean-Luc Bonniol (http://gradhiva.revues.org/261?lang=en)
Pseudo-Scientific and literary Haitian Journal “Les Griots.” Source: Entretien avec René Depestre by Jean-Luc Bonniol (http://gradhiva.revues.org/261?lang=en)

What was (is) the noirisme ideology?

At its most basic level, Matthew J. Smith (2004) defines it as an ideology “which advocated total control of the state apparatus by black representatives of the popular classes.” This, as Smith points out himself would of course be an incomplete definition of what noirisme meant in Occupation and post-Occupation Haiti.  At best, the noirisme ideology should be understood as radical, psychological, cultural, ethnological and political ideology, which argued for black supremacy in Haitian politics. While some appreciate noirisme to be Haiti’s form of Négritude, Michael Dash (2011) is right in his assessment that most Négritude writers were quick to distance themselves from noirisme when they realized the extent of its radicalism.

Historical context 

It is difficult to talk about the matrix in which this noiriste ideology evolved without a discussion, even if just briefly, on Haiti’s political landscape in the 1930s, when the movement itself emerged. American Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 (and some would argue until the 1940s when Haiti gained back the control of its national bank). During this period, they put an end to the Franco-German control of the Haitian economy and permanently oriented Haiti towards the United States (see our list for reading suggestions on the Occupation period). More importantly, the Marine Occupation also intensified the color question in the country. While it is important to recognize that “color politics” were an integral part of Haiti’s political scenery long before the arrival of the Marines, the Occupation did serve to strengthen the problem. By the racist policies carried by U.S. Marines, America’s general reputation for negrophobia and the overall preferential (although still racist) treatment of Haiti’s “fairer-colored” elite, the Occupation decades only made an existing problem more explosive.  Haitian intellectuals, Black and Mulatto, all tried to understand what had led to this humiliation Occupation. How did Haiti, a nation (at least in principles) founded on the equality of all, regardless of color and class, could have failed so much throughout the 19th and early 20th century that it was now being occupied by its powerful Northern neighbour who was more than pleased to point out its inferiority? The answer came in multiple forms, but to our interest, was the indigenous turn (mouvement indigéniste) proposed by people like Dr. Jean Price-Mars (and Jacques Roumain). Price-Mars’s 1928 Ainsi parla l’oncle (Thus Spoke the Uncle) had repercussions much greater than the author himself could have hoped for. In his book (and most of his lectures and writing), Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite (Black and Mulatto) of having lost its social usefulness and being entirely self-serving. To him, the Occupation could be, in part, understood as the elites’ failure to address Haiti’s real character and give it proper guidance. Haiti to Price-Mars, was not a sub-product of France, it had a strong African past that the elites had carefully tried to silence in vain hopes of being assimilated, at least in terms of customs, to European society. This, however, is not to say that Price-Mars believed in the biological determinism associated with most noiristes, what he called for was a more “honest” assessment of Haiti’s culture, one that did not necessarily blurred away the French colonial legacies in Haiti, but that did not suppress its African component. Price-Mars and most of the indigénistes poets and intellectuals who followed his footstep where mostly interested in Haiti in terms on ethnology and recognizing the importance of Africa in Haitian culture, especially in peasant areas. Vodou became an important site of investigation, as it was perhaps one of the most easily recognizable “African legacies” of Haiti. At a time when it was linked with sorcery, child murder and zombies, Price-Mars and other indigénistes sought to explain how Vodou had its own religiosity and were to be respected. They did not argue that it was THE only avenue for religious and spiritual fulfillment but it was undeniably important and present throughout the country. To be sure, Price-Mars was most likely not going to renounce his life – which was rather confortable has he was a respected intellectual –  and move to rural Haiti with the peasants he loved to romanticize so much in his writing, nor was he to move to Africa. All in all, the indigénisme must be seen as a “looking inward” greatly provoked by the experience of the Marine Occupation.

Indigénisme, especially for young intellectuals who came of age politically at the end of the Occupation did not go far enough to assess Haiti’s problems. In fact, it did nothing concrete to alter the situation and offered no tangible solution. It was in this context, that indigénisme, in many circles, began to give way to noirisme. While they represented  a neglected group in the early 1930s (the Haitian government focusing most of its efforts in suppressing leftist activity), noiristes did, as the decade went by, began to gain more support. Whatever the “Indigéniste School” had to say, the noiristes radicalized it completely. More than having a dual French and African past, Haiti had an “African element” which could only be directed by real, authentic Black Haitians, who were much closer to the poor and disenfranchised populace. Vodou was no longer an important religious expression among others; it was the supreme link between Haiti and Africa. Haiti not only had to be governed by Blacks to reflect the country’s majority, it had to be governed by a charismatic and autocratic Blacks, since liberalism was a “White” political system. Haitians were thus entirely biologically determined to be the people that they were and the real enemies of the state were Mulattoes with their “mulâtrisme.”

While there were many disagreements, important noiristes in this period included, Daniel Fignolé, but also the infamous “Three Ds”, being: Louis Diaquoi, Lormier Denis and a little known and obscure doctor by the name of François Duvalier. As mentioned before, few paid close attention the noiristes given their radicalism and their “Black myth” as David Nicholls (1975) puts it, of Haitian history. By the time of Diaquoi’s death in 1932, the noiristes were only beginning to better cement their organization and founded Les Griots, an organ where they would discuss their views and the pseudo-scientific origins of Haiti. For the next decade while Communist and Socialists, including Jacques Roumain, were put in jail and exiled, most of the noiristes remained in Haiti and gained more momentum as the decade went by.

While we will not go into all the details of the important election of 1946 (and invite you to read more on the topic ), 1946 was  a central year for Haiti. Élie Lescot (then (Mulatto) President of Haiti) was driven out of the country earlier that year – thanks to left wing activities, but also student protests very similar to the 1929 strikes that forced an American investigation with the Forbes Commission – and now, it seemed, perhaps for first time since the fall of Boyer in the 19th century, that Haiti was “open for democracy.” The illusion cleared away quickly but as Smith Notes (2004) this period gave rise to the formation of an unprecedented number of political parties and the general freedom of the press. What became clear by the time an election was to be held was that whomever the Haitian Assembly elected had to be Black. With educational reforms started in the late 19th century and the economical opportunities brought by the Occupation, Port-au-Prince was home of a new Black middle-class and educated elite who refused to accept the “Mulatto oligarchy” any longer. While not all of this group espoused a noiriste ideology, the color of the next president was central. It was Dumarsais Estimé, greatly thanks to the efforts of Col. Lavaud, Levelt and Magloire (Magloire , who later ousted Estimé and became President in 1950), who was chosen.

Estimé, unlike most of Haiti’s Black leaders, had been a schoolteacher, and not in the military when he became president. He was a noiriste to be sure, but a moderate one and did not share all of the noiriste ideology, which became a source of friction. What he did do, to a certain extent, was attempt at having a more “balanced” cabinet, accepting few members of the opposition into his government. Most notably, it was the great noiriste “intellectual” François Duvalier who became his Secretary of Labour and Public Health.

As we end our discussion here, since our main objective was simply to explain the emergence and early mechanism of the noirisme ideology, we should note that this diving force in Haitian politics did not end with the 1946 election (if anything, it only had a confirmation that it could be an effective exertion for the emerging “Black oligarchy” to win the political power it felt rightly entitled to).

Our conversation on noirisme in the 1930s and 1940s is of course incomplete. We do hope that the reader recognizes that reading one blog post on the topic is certainly not enough to claim an understanding of this complex ideological and political movement. We therefore encourage you to read (beyond) the few books and articles suggestions we attached to this post.

A fuller analysis of the noirisme should have included:

  • A historical portrait of the evolution of the color question until the Marine Occupation in 1915;
  • A discussion on the United States’ role in the 1946 and 1957 elections;
  • A discussion of left wing opposition in Haiti (Communist and Socialist) that saw the noiriste as no more than opportunist Blacks;
  • The divisions within the noiriste movement;
  • The rise of noirisme after the Dominican Massacre of Haitians in 1937 and the reaction (or lack thereof) of Sténio Vincent following the affair;
  • The relationship between political adherence and color (Theologians/Historians like David Nicholls, perhaps in an attempt to make the discussion of political currents in Haiti during the 1930s and 1940s more digestible suggest that intellectuals were usually divided in two main fractions: Mulattoes were leftists and Blacks were noiristes. While it is tempting to make this claim, and to a certain extent accurate, what do we make then of figures like Jacques Stephen Alexis (later murdered by Duvalier’s men) and René Depestre, who were Black and did not adhere to noirisme? Or Carl Bouard, from an elite Mulatto family, who became one of the greatest defenders of Vodou during the 1930s and also, was a close associate of the Denis and Duvalier during the same period?);
  •     …

While this post is of course incomplete, we hope that it helps, at least in some respect, highlight the complexities of an ideological movement that greatly affected Haiti.

FURTHER READING (NOIRISME AND COLOR QUESTION)

WORK CITED

Dash, Michael. “Haïti première république noire des lettres.” In Les actes de colloques en ligne du musée du quai Branly. Musée du quai Branly (département de la recherche et de l’enseignement), 2011.http://actesbranly.revues.org/480.

Nicholls, David. “Idéologie et Mouvements Politiques En Haïti, 1915-1946.” Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 30, no. 4 (1975): 654–79. doi:10.3406/ahess.1975.293637.

Smith, Matthew J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

– – – . “VIVE 1804!: The Haitian Revolution and the Revolutionary Generation of 1946.” Caribbean Quarterly 50, no. 4 (December 1, 2004): 25–41.

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New Beginnings

As it stands, my co-mod and myself have decided to migrate Haitian History on Tumblr to WordPress. While we do not intend to close the blog as announced (not only because it is, in and of itself, a useful reference tool but also, because we will continue to post picture related material), we should keep our presence there to a minimal.

Though Tumblr offers many advantages and helped us gain a certain following, it seems the platform itself is not well design for more intellectually driven discussions. We hope to attract a new user base with this WordPress and look favourably at the future.

All our best wishes to our readers for this holiday season,

– La Revue Indigène Team